The Problem We're Not Talking About

We don't teach to get rich.

No American teacher has ever taught with an eye toward luxury. Since public education was conceived by Thomas Jefferson, teaching has always been treated as a calling akin to the priesthood or the military: a servant profession that relies upon dedicated idealists whose primary reward is the work itself. Becoming a teacher in the nineteenth or early twentieth century was tantamount to taking a vow of poverty. Teachers were revered not just for the good work they did, but also for the sacrifices they made in order to do that work. The unionization of education helped bring teacher salaries up to a living wage, and to grant teachers pensions and health benefits (in fact, the first insurance companies were created precisely to make health care affordable to cash-strapped teachers), so that today, teachers can expect to live comfortable middle class lives, looking forward to secure retirements. But no one--not even administrators, the best paid professionals in the field--is getting rich on public education.

And yet, we teach. Our very existence challenges the fundamental principle of free market capitalism: that all humans are motivated first and foremost by profit.

Yet capitalism is the philosophy that drives American legislation. Until 1981, this was not a problem: both the executive and legislative branches of government viewed public education as a priority, whether at the national or state level.

Then came Ronald Reagan, and with him, the beginning of the end for well-funded public education.

Reagan was the vanguard of a revolt. Prior to Reagan, education was understood to be intrinsically valuable. Schools, like national parks, were a treasure to be guarded, maintained, equipped, and fully funded. Reagan brought a new philosophy to Washington: anything funded by the government must justify all its expenditures. There was fat to be trimmed. At the same time, capitalist values injected themselves into those expenditures: what value are we getting for our money? What's in it for us? It was no longer enough to teach students to be thinkers, to inspire them to explore the humanities, to enrich their lives with art and music. Anything that did not make America more competitive was called into question. Taxes and budgets were cut, again and again.

Thus began the practice of putting enrichment subjects on the chopping block, and forcing schools to do more with less. Class sizes grew, textbooks became outdated, facilities aged, teaching forces were reduced, subjects were eliminated. To this atmosphere of austerity was introduced, under the George W. Bush regime, the No Child Left Behind act: exhaustive standardized testing coupled with the expectation that schools would improve their test scores, with no accompanying influx of funding to help them achieve those improvements.

NCLB is no more. It was finally allowed to expire. But its principles remain strong within educational reform: school quality continues to be judged by test score, and schools are still expected to improve those scores with the resources they already have. Accustomed now to being starved of cash, that means scraping by.

This American Life recently aired "The Problem We All Live With," a two-part exploration of integration, the secret sauce that improves test performance for minority students better than any other school reform. The show compared the quality of education students were receiving in predominantly white suburban schools with that of inner city schools, and found the latter wanting across a spectrum of criteria. Given the chance to attend one of those suburban schools, inner city children's test scores rose significantly.

I'm a true believer in the importance of a diverse student population. I teach in one of the most diverse schools in Oregon, and I love it. Children who attend Margaret Scott are receiving an education they can't get in almost any other school outside my district: they are learning how to relate to human beings whose appearance, customs, language, and religion differ from their own. If there was a way of testing this part of their education, they'd be ahead of children in far wealthier districts.

That's not, of course, what testing is about. And under the testing regime that actually exists, Scott is failing, miserably. So badly that the school has received a substantial grant to improve those scores.

What the grant won't improve is the facilities. We're overcrowded to the point that when I return to the building next week, I'm not sure where I'll be teaching music. Every classroom is taken. Chances are good I'll have to teach in the gym again, while the half-time PE teacher will be teaching in the cafeteria. It's an impossible problem our new principal is faced with. The district passed a capital funds bond last year that will replace and expand several other buildings, but all Scott will receive from it is a security upgrade.

And that brings me back to the title of this essay. Since 1981, the problem with public education in the United States has come down to one thing: funding. There's just not enough of it. We're getting by with less than we need. At Scott, we need a bigger building to accommodate the influx of students from a new apartment complex that just opened. We need dedicated classrooms for specialists that don't shift around or cease to exist as the student population grows. We need more teachers so that class sizes don't go into the 30s. We need materials that are up-to-date, equipment that is not falling apart, after-school programs to help struggling students succeed.

All of these things cost money, and the only way to raise that money in Oregon (except for building improvements, which are the only things bonds can be used to pay for) is taxes. Riding the tax revolt wave kicked off by the Reagan era, Oregon's Measure 5, passed in 1990, slashed local property taxes and shifted the burden of school funding to the state legislature, which has been unwilling, session after session, to raise income taxes.

But that's what we need. All the reforms in the world can't make the difference for our students that adequate funding will. It's not just about making education a priority again, because in our continued legislative climate of austerity, that means cutting Medicaid, public housing, emergency services. It's about revenue. We've got to raise more money if we're going to spend more money.

Simply put: to give our students the education they deserve, we, the taxpayers, are going to have to cough up more money.


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